Soon we may see more Tory MPs with their own talk show than without. Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg have signed up to present shows for Talk TV and GB News respectively. Whether they were passed over for the Love Island gig is unknown.
‘Friday Night with Nadine’ will pick up from her stint on her channel last year. One does not expect to see Rees-Mogg also asking if we should “be proud of programmes like ‘My Massive C**k’. But he will be touring the country, broadcasting in front of live audiences, and debating current affairs.
Whilst a ratings battle between two members of Boris Johnson’s Praetorian Guard should prove entertaining – Dorries already has him lined up as a guest – the pair aren’t the first from the Tory backbenchers to have at TV presenting. Rees-Mogg, for instance, follows in the footsteps of Esther Mcvey, Philip Davies, Dehenna Davision, and Lee Anderson by signing up for GB News.
What should we make of this? I’ve recently been to see Best of Enemies, James Graham’s excellent play about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley’s debates during the 1968 presidential election. The author of This House suggests the pair’s back-and-forth represented a seminal moment in the relationship between politics and television.
The disinterested pursuit and presentation of truth gave way to the horrors of infotainment. Opinion came before accuracy; audience figures before intellectual heft. Give it a few decades, and a reality TV star can be President and railing against the ‘MSM’ is passe.
Is the scramble to get on the box a symbol of decline? Not really. Politicians and the media have always been in a mutually dependent relationship. The former needs the latter to communicate to the public; the latter needs the former for a continual supply of stories.
Hence why the Whigs and Tories subsidised papers and playwrights, or why transitioning from journalism to politics (and back) is a common career path for power-hungry hacks. What changed from the 1960s is the decline in deference towards the political/journalistic class. Politicians weren’t previously given easy rides. But one cannot imagine Robin Day asking ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’
Reality TV’s rise has provided politicians with the chance to reach voters without sitting down for interviews. Eating kangaroo testicles or bellyflopping allows politicians to show willingness, to earn crucial publicity and name recognition, but avoid Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman. Viewers like it. They can humiliate a class they largely despise.
What Dorries, Rees-Mogg, and co are doing is going one step further. They are seizing the means of news production. If you want a media profile, recognition, and influence, but don’t want to put on your dancing shoes, why not present the news yourself?
Dorries has already had her fill of reality TV, and Rees-Mogg has long learnt the benefits of addressing the public on his own terms through our Moggcast. Both are able to draw in viewers. The former Culture Secretary boosted Piers Morgan’s ratings last autumn, and the ex-Business Secretary has packed out the London Palladium.
The two are far from the first former ministers to have a chat show – hello, Michael Portillo! – although one hopes they do better than Harold Wilson. Nor are they the first backbenchers to find a weekly slot on the box. Even with those mentioned above, have we so quickly forgotten Diane Abbott’s years on the This Week sofa?
Of course, the two benefit from the diversification of our media environment. It’s the old Square and the Tower thing. Blogs, YouTube, podcasts, social media – Talk TV and GB News are a product of that collective challenge to the duopoly of the old channels and papers. There’s nothing wrong with that – we are too. We wish them both the best of luck.
That won’t stop me from nailing my colours to the mast. Rees-Mogg will win this battle of the Johnsonites. Partially because the David of GB News has been remarkably successful in challenging TalkTV’s Murdochian Goliath. But mainly because our star podcaster has been better than his new rival in learning the lessons in media wrangling taught by their once and future king.
Johnson’s career owes an awful lot to his mastery of television. He first won the loyalty of the faithful as a writer, extolling the eternal Tory verities from The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph when Tony Blair was in his pomp. When being a Conservative was deeply uncool – 14 pints, I ask you – he somehow made it fun.
His true star power cme through his ability to take his plum-voiced bashful fogeyism onto the airwaves, to send himself up on Have I Got News for You, zoot around the Top Gear test track, or dabble with stick-on tattoos with Billy Bragg at Glastonbury. For the rest, consult our Contributing Editor.
Like Johnson, Rees-Mogg has turned holding firm the spirit of the age into a virtue, and has been rewarded with popularity. He was the face of Moggmentum; he has inherited Johnson’s crown as the tribune of Toryism. He stands against the peddlers of doom and gloom, a beacon to those who feel the Government is straying from proper Conservatism. That’s if Johnson doesn’t want the job himself.
Both shows will thus disappoint anyone in Number 10 who hopes the ex-Prime Minister will disappear from the headlines anytime soon. They might be victims of their own success if a Johnson restoration plonks both hosts back in the Cabinet. In the meantime, one welcomes them to the centre-right media firmament – as long as no podcasting duties are shirked.